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Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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New Details on Torture Deaths

By Jason Leopold
February 12, 2009

In December 2002 – as the Bush administration was ratcheting up its harsh questioning of detainees – several captives died from “abusive” treatment at the hands of U.S. military interrogators in Afghanistan, according to newly declassified Defense Department documents.

The deaths appear to fit within the administration’s broader pattern of detainee mistreatment, but the two newly released pages from the Church Report – named after the chief investigator Vice Admiral Albert T. Church – claimed that the interrogators in these cases went beyond the tactics then approved for use in Afghanistan.

The pages focused on the deaths of two prisoners at the U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan. One prisoner died on Dec. 4, 2002, and another six days later.

"In both cases, [the prisoners] were handcuffed to fixed objects above their heads in order to keep them awake," the documents said. "Additionally, interrogations in both incidents involved the use of physical violence, including kicking, beating, and the use of ‘compliance blows’ which involved striking the [prisoners’] legs with the [interrogators’] knees.

“In both cases, blunt force trauma to the legs was implicated in the deaths. In one case, a pulmonary embolism developed as a consequence of the blunt force trauma, and in the other case pre-existing coronary artery disease was complicated by the blunt force trauma."

The Church report said the interrogators allegedly went beyond authorized techniques by employing “sleep deprivation, the use of scenarios designed to convince the detainee that death or severely painful consequences are imminent for him and/or his family, and beating.” The report added that a private contractor, David Passaro, conducted an interrogation that allegedly led to another detainee death.

However, when juxtaposed with a report issued last December by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the evidence suggests a different story – one in which the Bush administration was sending mixed signals to interrogators about how they should calibrate the pain inflicted on detainees.

That bipartisan report traced the U.S. abuse of detainees to President George W. Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, action memorandum that excluded “war on terror” suspects from Geneva Convention protections.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s report said Bush’s memo opened the door to “considering aggressive techniques,” which were then developed with the complicity of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials.

“The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own,” the committee report said. “The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.”

Troubling Narrative

The Senate report’s narrative of the prisoner abuse begins in early 2002 when Rumsfeld’s Defense Department inquired about what limits should be placed on interrogations of terror suspects detained during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Those questions sparked an internal administration debate and led to Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, memo stating that the Third Geneva Convention, which sets standards for treatment of prisoners from armed conflicts, “did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention,” the report said.

What followed were senior-level meetings deciding which interrogation techniques could be used and which couldn’t.
In July 2002, Rumsfeld and his legal counsel, William Haynes, solicited input from military psychologists about developing harsh methods that interrogators could use against detainees who were being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

On Dec. 2, 2002, Rumsfeld authorized “aggressive interrogation techniques,” leading to “interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials [that] conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody,” the Senate report said.

"What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely,” the report said. [For details, see’s “Torture Trail Seen Starting with Bush.”]

Rumsfeld’s Dec. 2, 2002, order preceded the two lethal interrogations in Afghanistan, although it’s unclear how fast knowledge of the secretary’s looser guidelines spread into the field.

An earlier report by Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay said some prisoner abuses resulted from Rumsfeld’s verbal and written authorizations in December 2002 allowing interrogators to use “stress positions, isolation for up to 30 days, removal of clothing and the use of detainees' phobias (such as the use of dogs).”

The Fay report said, “From December 2002, interrogators in Afghanistan were removing clothing, isolating people for long periods of time, using stress positions, exploiting fear of dogs and implementing sleep and light deprivation.”

Rumsfeld’s approval of some of these interrogation methods drew criticism from Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy.

“The interrogation techniques approved by the Secretary [of Defense] should not have been authorized because some (but not all) of them, whether applied singly or in combination, could produce effects reaching the level of torture, a degree of mistreatment not otherwise proscribed by the memo because it did not articulate any bright-line standard for prohibited detainee treatment, a necessary element in any such document,” Mora wrote in a letter to the Navy’s inspector general.

ACLU Disclosures

The ACLU, which has carried on a long legal battle to expose the Bush administration’s secret policies on detainees, released the two pages from the Church report and other documents on Wednesday, adding to an expansive body of material covering thousands of pages.

Other ACLU documents related to:

--Investigation into the homicide or involuntary manslaughter of detainee Dilar Dababa by U.S. forces in 2003 in Iraq.

--Investigation launched after allegations that an Iraqi prisoner was subjected to torture and abuse at “The Disco” located in the Special Operations Force Compound in Mosul, Iraq). The abuse consisted of filling his jumpsuit with ice, then hosing him down and making him stand for long periods of time, sometimes in front of an air conditioner; forcing him to lay down and drink water until he gagged, vomited or choked, having his head banged against a hot steel plate while hooded and interrogated; being forced to do leg lifts with bags of ice placed on his ankles, and being kicked when he could not do more.

--Investigation that established probable cause to believe that U.S. forces committed homicide in 2003 when they participated in the binding of detainee Abed Mowhoush in a sleeping bag during an interrogation, causing him to die of asphyxiation.

Though the Bush administration is gone, leading congressional Democrat have vowed to conduct further investigations of the abuses – and the American public appears to be of the same mind.

A new Gallup poll, which was released on Thursday, found majorities supporting either criminal or fact-finding investigations. For instance, on torture, 38 percent favored a criminal investigation while 24 percent favored an investigation by an independent panel. Thirty-four percent of those polled said they did not support additional investigation.  

The findings would appear to undercut the claims of many Republican and even some Democrat that the public lacks the appetite to look into Bush administration abuses.

On Monday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, joined those advocating a “truth and reconciliation commission” that would seek facts, not jail time.

“We could develop and authorize a person or group of people universally recognized as fair minded, and without axes to grind,” Leahy said. “Their straightforward mission would be to find the truth” about controversies such as torture of detainees and warrantless wiretaps.

Later Monday, asked whether he would support Leahy’s plan, President Barack Obama declined comment, saying he was unfamiliar with it. He then reiterated his ambiguous response from the campaign, that no one is above the law but that he favored looking forward, not backward.

Leahy is expected to introduce a bill soon that would create his proposed truth commission. Last month, Leahy’s counterpart in the House, Rep. John Conyers, sponsored similar legislation to create a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts to probe the “broad range” of policies pursued by the Bush administration “under claims of unreviewable war powers.”

Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at

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